I Corinthians 12: 12-30
It’s hard to ignore Paul’s letter to the Corinthians today, not simply because of its length, but we’re at that point where it is truly some of his most poetic writings and a beautiful crescendo to his message to Corinth. Unfortunately, we’ve picked up nearly three quarters into the letter so it also stands outside of the larger context of his message to this community. If you go back to the beginning, Paul begins to question who they have become. There’s a question about the divisiveness in the community and how he has watched it splinter over issues surrounding competition and superiority, so from the beginning he tries to move them to a place of their deeper identity in Christ. Paul, without a doubt, is very much in touch with the fact that he’s born in that image and likeness and understands what it means to be a person or community to be living in Christ and Corinth has strayed. It’s become about exclusion, about who has the greatest gift, about a sense of hierarchy, a reminder of Paul of what happens when we don’t move to the deeper places in our lives and become trapped by what we think is important simply with our eyes.
Paul, though, envisions a very different community and struggles with what he has seen. Paul sees the potential of Corinth but he also sees their own lack of growing in the faith. They have become content with the way it is, which walls them off from going deeper and also begins the splintering of the community. Last week we heard him speak of the gifts coming from one Spirit and next week the climactic reading on love, but today he spells it out through the metaphor of the body and the value of all the parts and a warning about cutting off the parts that have been seen as less viable. If there’s anything we can learn from Paul it is that it is often in the weakest parts of our body that we find the greatest value. We can often learn the most about ourselves and become whole, as he desires, by looking at what we have chose to ignore, the people we have cut off, the ones we have excluded over time.
This is the community that has decided to exclude others from this meal. They have made the point at times to cause scandal in the life of the greater community. They have, in many ways, done harm to themselves by not cutting others off from them but by that very act, excluding themselves from the larger community, creating not a community that welcomes but rather a community that wants to pick and choose who they deem worth to be a part of them. In one of the most beautiful of ways, Paul tries to take them back to their core, to who they really are and what it means to say, “in Christ”. For Paul it means everything to every community that he writes to that we hear throughout the year. Often what appears to be our greatest weakness, the “cause of our downfall” winds up being the “means of our salvation”. Their very sin as a community can lead them to their own demise or can be seen as an invitation to reclaiming themselves “in Christ”. That lies at the heart of what Paul has to say when he writes to these communities, but in particular to the people of Corinth who often just agonized Paul because of what he had witnessed with them.
It’s not to say that Paul thinks any less of all the gifts and all that they contribute to the life of the community. That would miss his point. The very next word can be summed in simply by saying, “but”. All of this is important, but there’s still more. He will go onto to remind them that if it’s not rooted in love, and if it causes splintering and a community turning in on itself, then it’s not rooted in love, then it’s all for naught. As a matter of fact, he continues in this section that if you still think it’s about all of this stuff, competing and comparing, putting yourself above others, and all the rest, then you still remain in a childish faith and have not allowed yourself to grow into an adult in the faith. Read on; it’s right there is writing! When we continue, as community, as country, or even as individuals, hung up on being right and others wrong, splintering ourselves, then there remains a crisis of faith in the community because you’re missing your deeper identity. It’s all well and good, but understand it means the death of the community in the end because you will splinter yourself a part that way. The path forward is to grow in dialogue through our deeper identity, where is a common ground, where there is a mutuality in seeing the other as person, seeing the other as an intricate part of the body and a worthy part of the body.
Paul’s words ring just as true today as they did centuries ago. Whether it’s our own community, the larger community, or certainly our country. We fail to take the deeper journey to a more whole life, a holy life. It had to have broken Paul’s heart along the way as he watched the demise of some of these communities, and more often than not, at their own doing. He watches them become simply about themselves and losing their deeper identity. He watches them stunted in their own growth in faith and lack thereof. For Paul, what matters most is that you remain grounded “in Christ”. When we allow ourselves to fall into that mystery once again, we not only find ourselves connected as a human race, but the promise made by God long ago remains eternal, the promise of life.